National Press Club

Drone journalism raises legal, safety, ethical issues

July 24, 2014 | By Lorna Aldrich |

University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite.

University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Matt Waite, University of Nebraska journalism professor, and attorney Chuck Tobin described at a July 23 National Press Club event the issues that accompany the advantages of using small drone aircraft for journalism.

"Drone journalism is an evolving area," Tobin said, because it involves so many legal, safety and ethical issues.

He explained the legal uncertainties that have arisen because the Federal Aviation Administration has not completed the process of creating and implementing regulations for drones, also known as UAVs -- unpiloted aerial vehicles. In the absence of enforceable drone regulations, the FAA has relied on a combination of regulations and laws devised for airplanes and hobbyists. Essentially, until the regulations are developed, commercial use of a drone is considered illegal.

Tobin showed a video of the University of Virginia campus by Raphael Pirker, which led to a $10,000 fine by the FAA. The case, now on appeal with the National Transportation Safety Board, has been joined by a number of journalism organizations, including the Club, he said. The case was described at a June Newsmaker here

The FAA has been charged by Congress with developing official regulations for drones, he noted, and urged that the regulations be sensitive to First Amendment issues. He and colleagues are talking with the FAA, he said.

Waite emphasized safety issues associated with small drones, citing two widely circulated drone videos. Of Amazon's video showing a package delivered by a small drone with circulating helicopter-like blades, he said that if a child anticipating the package reached for it, her finger could be cut off by the blades. Of a video showing a drone flying through fireworks, he said that if it had hit one firework fragment, burning plastic could have dropped on children watching the fireworks.

The professor also described the difficulty of controlling a small drone that he had just demonstrated to the audience in the Club's conference rooms. He called it a "flying lawnmower," noting that if it went into a crowd someone would be "sliced up."

Waite showed videos of drone coverage of a drought in Nebraska in 2012, for which he received a cease and desist order from the FAA. His group is now applying for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, a procedure the FAA uses to authorize specific uses of drones.

The drought video demonstrated the advantage of drones for journalism by showing its viewers the scope of the drought from a perspective not otherwise possible, he said. Similarly, drones could aid reporting of fires and other natural disasters, he said.

Drones have potential for providing data in investigative journalism as well, he said.

He showed a second example of drone journalism in Africa produced by one of his students to illustrate a story on poaching endangered animals. The drone showed closeups of elephants, giraffes and a rhinoceroses.

The video raised ethical issues because the drone alarmed the animals leading the student to back it off at times, he said.

There would be similar ethical issues for journalists covering people, he said, citing a mother grieving over the gruesome murder of her children he witnessed as a reporter some years ago. If such an an event were covered in the future by a number of journalists with small drones, they would be intrusive, he said.

Waite pointed out that ethics go beyond the law. "Just because the law says we can does not mean we should," he said.

The event was co-sponsored by the Club's Photography and Freedom of the Press Committees